The drinking God

God/Ilu seated on his throne, as depicted on a Ugaritic stele. Note the horns on his head. (Museum of Aleppo)

 

The following text is from ancient Ugarit (located in modern Syria), a city whose textual archives from the 15th-13th centuries BCE have provided a huge trove of literary epics, mythic lore, and linguistic data.

Ever wonder where the phrases “hair of the dog” and “he looks like hell” first appeared?  Look no further.  This is the epic saga of how God (Ilu/El, the father god in Levantine religion) got so drunk that his sons had to carry him to bed, while their lady friends cooked up a hangover cure.  Really.


I. The Gods Feast

God slaughtered venison in his home, [1]
       livestock within his palace,
       and welcomed the gods to the feast.
The gods ate and drank;
       they grew tipsy on wine,
       drunk on beer.

Moon-God Yarihu prepared his goblet;
       like a dog, he clambered [2]
       underneath the table.
Each god who recognized him
       prepared him scraps of meat —
but each god who did not recognized him
       hit him with a stick, [3]
       underneath the table.

When Astarte and Anat arrived,
       Astarte offered him a rump steak,
       and Anat a shoulder cut. [4]
The gatekeeper of God’s house scolded them:
       “Hey! Why are you offering a dog rump steak,
       offering a shoulder cut to a mongrel?
He scolded God, his father: “He is sitting (there)!” [5]

II. God Over-Indulges

God invited in the drinkers;
       God sat down in his saloon.
He grew tipsy on wine,
       drunk on beer.
God headed back to his house
       and entered his chambers.
They loaded him onto Thukamunu and Shunamu, his sons,
       and the two chastized the groaning man, [6]
       he who had horns and a tail.
He soiled himself with shit and piss,
       and God fell down as if dead;
       God (looked) like someone descending to Hades.

Anat and Astarte began to hunt.

[The next several lines are nearly unreadable; the only legible phrases are “holy,” “Astarte and Anat,” and “and with them, she brought back.”  Most scholars assume that the women are hunting down the ingredients for their cure.]

As soon as she treated (him), he was suddenly revived.

III. The Medical Treatment

The following should be placed:
on his forehead, the hairs of a dog, [7]
and (on) the head, colocynth, and (on) his navel. [8]
At the same time, he should drink green olive juice. [9]

Source: The Marzeah in the Prophetic Literature: References and Allusions in Light, by John L. MacLaughlin (2001). pp.24–6. ISBN 9004099956. Quoted as fair use.


[1] “Venison” is used in the archaic sense of “any animal hunted for meat.”  The exact species of animal being eaten is unclear.

[2] Scholars are divided here; this verb may mean one of several dog-like activities: crawling, digging, or even swishing a tail.

[3] Alternately, Yarihu could be the subject: “if a god doesn’t notice him, [Yarihu] hits [the other god] with a stick.”  That alternative makes a bit more narrative sense, to be honest.  However, this version works better with my theory about the dog hair (cf. note 7): for whatever reason, the gods give a painful hangover to drinkers whom they don’t recognize.

[4] Again, the meat identifications are a bit tentative.  But if they are accurate, they may be allusions to the goddess’s associations; Astarte’s domain included sexuality, connected to the thigh (cf. Enkidu throwing the Bull of Heaven’s thigh at Ishtar [=Astarte]), while Anat was associated with warfare and the strength of arm and shoulder.

[5] Most translations include “He is sitting” with the next stanza; either this line continues the direct speech (“Scold God, his father!”) or adds an addendum (“He [also] scolds God, his father.”).  The problem with that line division is that it creates an odd redundancy: Ilu is sitting, then calls for his fellow drinkers, then sits again.

[6] Here I follow Noegel, who reads the Ugaritic ḥabayu as an epithet for Ilu, mumbling and groaning like a mooing cow in his intoxication.  Since Ilu is frequently described as a bull, the horns and tail are not surprising attributes; they may emphasize that while drunk, he resembles a strong but unthinking animal.  (Fun fact: Ilu’s title is specifically ṯôru Ilu, “Bull God.”  Ṯôru is probably one of the rare words so ancient that it’s shared by Semitic and Indo-European languages — so it’s ultimately related to “taurus” and “steer.”)  The other alternative, which was the mainstream translation for many years, translates Habayu as a demonic figure who appears on the scene, frightening Ilu until he soils himself.  (If this reading is accurate, an allusion to the horned Habayu may also appear in the Hebrew Bible in Habakkuk 3:4.)

[7] Placing dog hairs on the forehead clearly has no modern medical value; while the motives behind ancient magico-medical treatments are not always straightforward, the fact that a dog is mentioned twice earlier in the story is likely no coincidence.  (A dog may have appeared a third time in the textual gap if it was the women’s prey; their verb does normally refer to animal hunting, not vegetable harvesting.)  There’s no scholarly consensus about the purpose of the ingredient.  My very tentative guess is that the dog hairs ritually place the patient in the role of Yarihu, who acted “like a dog” in the first section of the story.  Despite the chastising of Ilu’s gatekeeper, the gods feed Yarihu scraps of meat and allow him to enjoy his drink — unless they don’t recognize him, in which they beat him, perhaps causing the headache of a hangover.  In contrast, Ilu’s attempt at maintaining dignity leaves him unconscious in his own excrement.  By humbling himself to the role of a dog, the patient will receive divine pity.

[8] There is some dispute over the meaning of this line, although “head” and “his navel” are pretty straightforward.  The term in between (PQQ) could be two words — “mouth (and) throat” — or a single name, perhaps for a plant.  In Akkadian, peqqūtu/peqû is a name for the colocynth, a bitter melon that’s widespread in the Middle East.  The colocynth was used extensively in medical concoctions in the ancient world, and its notoriously bitter flavor might further have shocked an unconscious patient into wakefulness, so I have gone with this translation.  If the term means “mouth (and) throat,” it could refer either to applying the dog hairs to those locations on the patient, or to sacrificing a dog and literally placing its head, mouth, and throat on the patient.

[9] “Green olive juice” is, more literally, “the blood/juice of an olive of autumn.”  Since ripe olives are harvested in November/December, an “autumn olive” may have been a green (i.e. unripe) olive, as contrasted to a ripe “winter olive.”  The oil from unripe olives is especially bitter and grassy, so it could have assisted the colocynth in waking the patient.  However (contra most translations), I don’t think that this necessarily refers to oil, since Ugaritic has another perfectly good word for oil.  Amurca, the liquid byproduct of olive oil production, is bitter-tasting and dark-colored, and it inhibits food-borne pathogens.  The dark color would explain the term “blood” (not the normal term for juice, let alone oil), and the bitter flavor and antibiotic properties would explain its medical use.

 

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